It is to be regretted that no one of Mason's friends has thought fit to pay the same tribute of respect to his memory, which he had himself paid to that of his two poetical friends, Gray and Whitehead. In this dearth of authentic biography, we must be contented with such information concerning him, as either his own writings, or the incidental mention made of him by others, will furnish.
William Mason was born on the 23rd of February, 1725, at Hull, where his father, who was vicar of St. Trinity, resided. Whether he had any other preceptor in boyhood, except his parent, is not known. That this parent was a man of no common attainments, appears from a poem which his son addressed to him when he had attained his twenty-first year, and in which he acknowledged with gratitude the instructions he had received from him in the arts of painting, poetry, and music. In 1742, he was admitted of St. John's College, Cambridge; and there, in 1744, the year in which Pope died, he wrote Musaeus, a monody on that poet; and Il Bellicoso and Il Pacifico, a very juvenile imitation, as he properly calls it, of the Allegro and Penseroso. In 1746, he took his degree of Bachelor of Arts; and in the ensuing year, with a heavy heart, and with some fear lest he should grow old "in northern clime," bade farewell to Granta in an Ode, which commemorates the virtues of his tutor, Dr. Powell. He soon, however, returned; by his father's permission visited London; and removing from St. John's College to Pembroke Hall, was unexpectedly nominated Fellow of that society in 1747, when by the advice of Dr. Powell, he published Musaeus. His fourth Ode expresses his delight at the prospect of being restored to the banks of the Cam. In a letter to a friend written this year, he boasts that his poem had already passed through three impressions. At the same time, he wrote his Ode to a Water Nymph, not without some fancy and elegance, in which his passion for the new style of gardening first shewed itself; as his political bias did the year after in Isis, a poem levelled against the supposed Toryism of Oxford, and chiefly valuable for having called forth the Triumph of Isis, by Thomas Warton. To this he prefixed an advertisement, declaring that it would never have appeared in print, had not an interpolated copy, published in a country newspaper, scandalously misrepresented the principles of the author. Now commenced his intimacy with Gray, who was rather more than eight years his senior, a disparity which, at that period of life, is apt to prevent men at college from uniting very closely. His friend described him to Dr. Wharton as having much fancy, little judgment, and a good deal of modesty. "I take him," continued Gray, "for a good and well-meaning creature; but then he is really in simplicity a child, and loves every body he meets with: he reads little or nothing, writes abundance, and that with a design to make his fortune by it." On reviewing this character of himself twenty-five years after, he confessed, what cannot be matter of surprise, that this interval had made a considerable abatement in his general philanthropy; but denied having looked for more emolument from his publications than a few guineas to take him to a play or an opera. Gray's next report of him, after a year's farther acquaintance, is, that he grows apace into his good graces, as he knows him more; that "he is very ingenious, with great good nature and simplicity; a little vain, but in so harmless and so comical a way, that it does not offend one at all; a little ambitious, but withal so ignorant in the world and its ways, that this does not hurt him in one's opinion; so sincere and so undisguised, that no mind with a spark of generosity would ever think of hurting him, he lies so open to injury; but so indolent, that if he cannot overcome this habit, all his good qualities will signify nothing at all." At this time, he published an Ode on the Installation of the Duke of Newcastle, which his friend, who was a laughing spectator of the ceremony, considers "the only entertainment that had any tolerable elegance," and thinks it, "with some little abatements, uncommonly well on such an occasion:" it was, however, very inferior to that which he himself composed when the Duke of Grafton was installed.
His next production (in 1751) was Elfrida, written on the model of the ancient Greek Tragedy; a delicate exotic, not made to thrive in our "cold septentrion blasts," and which, when it was long after transferred to tho theatre by Colman, was unable to endure the rough aspect of a British audience. The poet complained of some trimming and altering that had been thought requisite by the manager on the occasion; and Colman, it is said, in return, threatened him with a chorus of Grecian washerwomen. Matters were no better when Mason himself undertook to prepare it for the stage.
In 1752, we find him recommended to Lord Rockingham, by Mr. Charles Yorke, who thought him, said Warburton, likely to attach that Lord's liking to him, as he was a young nobleman of elegance, and loved painting and music. In the following year he lost his father, in the disposition of whose affairs he was less considered than he thought himself entitled to expect. What the reason for this partiality was, it would be vain to conjecture; nor have we any means of knowing whether the disappointment determined him to the choice of a profession which he made soon after (in 1754), when he entered into the church. From the following passage, in a letter of Warburton's, it appears that the step was not taken without some hesitation. "Mr. Mason has called on me. I found him yet unresolved whether he would take the living. I said, was the question about a mere secular employment, I should blame him without reserve if he refused the offer. But as I regarded going into orders in another light, I frankly owned to him he ought not to go unless he had a call; by which I meant, I told him, nothing fanatical or superstitious, but an inclination, and on that a resolution, to dedicate all his studies to the science of religion, and totally to abandon his poetry: he entirely agreed with me in thinking that decency, reputation, and religion, all required this sacrifice of him, and that if he went into orders he intended to give it." This was surely an absurd squeamishness in one of the same profession, as Warburton was, who had begun his career by translations in prose and verse from Latin writers, had then mingled in the literary cabals of the day, and afterwards did not think his time misemployed in editing and commenting on Shakspeare and Pope. Yet he was unreasonable enough to continue his expectations that Mason should do what he had, without any apparent compunction, omitted to do himself; for after speaking of Brown, the unfortunate author of Barbarossa, who was also an ecclesiastic, he adds: "How much shall I honour one, who has a stronger propensity to poetry, and has got a greater name in it, if he performs his promise to me of putting away these idle baggages after his sacred espousal." After all, this proved to be one of the vows at which Jove laughs. The sacred espousal did not lessen his devotion to the idle baggages; and it is very doubtful whether he discharged his duties as King's Chaplain or Rector of Aston (for both which appointments he was indebted to the kindness of Lord Holdernesse) at all the worse for this attachment, which he was indeed barefaced enough to avow two years after by the publication of some of his Odes. At his Rectory of Aston, in Yorkshire, he continued to live for great part of his remaining life, with occasional absences in the metropolis, at Cambridge, or at York, where he was made Precentor and Canon of the Cathedral, and where his residence was therefore sometimes required. I have not learnt whether he had any other preferment. Hurd, in a letter written in 1768, mentions that the death of a Dr. Atwell threw a good living into his hands. Be this as it might, he was rich enough, and had an annual income of about fifteen hundred pounds at his death. Lord Orford says of him somewhere in his letters, that he intended to have refused a bishopric if it had been offered him. He might have spared himself the pains of coming to this resolution; for mitres, "though they fell on many a critic's head," and on that of his friend Hurd among the rest, did not seem adapted to the brows of a poet. When the death of Cibber had made the laurel vacant, he was informed that "being in orders he was thought merely on that account less eligible for the office than a layman." "A reason," said he, "so politely put, I was glad to hear assigned; and if I had thought it a weak one, they who know me will readily believe that I am the last man in the world who would have attempted to controvert it." Of the laurel, he probably was not more ambitious than of the mitre; though he was still so obstinate as to believe that he might unite the characters of a clerk and a poet, to which he would fain have super-added that of a statist also. Caractacus, another tragedy on the ancient plan, but which made a better figure on the stage, appeared in 1759; and in 1762, three elegies. In 1769, Harris heard him preach at St. James's early prayers, and give a fling at the French for the invasion of Corsica. Thus politics, added his hearer, have entered the sanctuary. The sermon is the sixth in his printed collection. A fling at the French was at all times a favourite topic with him. In the discourse delivered before George III. on the Sunday preceding his Coronation, he has stretched the text a little that he may take occasion to descant on the blessings of civil liberty, and has quoted Montesquieu's opinion of the British Government. In praising our religious toleration, he is careful to justify our exception of the church of Rome from the general indulgence. Nor was it in the pulpit only that he acted the politician. He was one of those, as we are told in the Biographical Dictionary, who thought the decision of Parliament on the Middlesex election a violation of the rights of the people; and when the counties began, in 1779, to associate for parliamentary reform, he took an active part in assisting their deliberations, and wrote several Patriotic manifestos. In the same year appeared his Ode to the Naval Officers of Great Britain, on the trial of Admiral Keppel, in which the poetry is strangled by the politics. His harp was in better tune, when, in 1782, an Ode to Mr. Pitt declared the hopes he had conceived of the son of Chatham; for, like many others, who espoused the cause of freedom, he had ranged himself among the partisans of the youthful statesman, who was then doing all he could to persuade others, as he had no doubt persuaded himself, that he was one of the number.
In the mean time Gray, who, if he had lived longer, might, perhaps, have restrained him from mixing in this turmoil, was no more. The office which he performed of biographer, or rather of editor, for his deceased friend, has given us one of the most delightful books in its kind that our language can boast. It is just that this acknowledgment should be made to Mason, although Mr. Mathias has recently added many others of Gray's most valuable papers, which his former editor was scarcely scholar enough to estimate as they deserved; and Mr. Mitford has shewn us, that some omissions, and perhaps some alterations, were unnecessarily made by him in the letters themselves. As to the task which the latter of these gentlemen imposed on himself, few will think that every passage which he has admitted, though there be nothing in any to detract from the real worth, of Gray, could have been made public consistently with those sacred feelings of regard for his memory, by which the mind of Mason was impressed, and that reluctance which he must have had to conquer, before he resolved on the publication at all. The following extract from a letter, written by the Rev. Edward Jones, brings us into the presence of Mason, and almost to an acquaintance with his thoughts at this time, and on this occasion. "Being at York in September 1771, (Gray died on the thirtieth of July preceding), I was introduced to Mr. Mason, then in residence. On my first visit, he was sitting in all attitude of much attention to a drawing, pinned up near the fire-place; and another gentleman, whom I afterwards found to be a Mr. Varlet, a miniature painter, who has since settled at Bath, had evidently been in conversation with him about it. My friend begged leave to ask whom it was intended to represent. Mr. Mason hesitated, and looked earnestly at Mr. Varlet. I could not resist (though I instantly felt a wish to have been silent) saying, surely from the strong likeness it must be the late Mr. Gray. Mr. Mason at once certainly forgave the intrusion, by asking my opinion as to his fears of having caricatured his poor friend. The features were certainly softened down, previously to the engraving." — Nichols's Literary Anecdotes vol. ix. p. 718.
In the next year, 1772, appeared the first book of the English Garden. The other three followed separately in 1777, 1779, and 1782. The very title of this poem was enough to induce a suspicion, that the art which it taught (if art it can be called) was not founded on general and permanent principles. It was rather a mode which the taste of the time and country had rendered prevalent, and which the love of novelty is already supplanting. In the neighbourhood of those buildings which man constructs for use or magnificence, there is no reason why he should prefer irregularity to order, or dispose his paths in curved lines, rather than in straight. Homer, when he describes the cavern of Calypso, covers it with a vine, and scatters the alder, the poplar, and the cypress, without any symmetry about it; but near the palace of Alcinous he lays out the garden by the rule and compass. Our first parents in Paradise, are placed by Milton amidst "A happy rural Beat of various view;" but let the same poet represent himself in his pensive or his cheerful moods, and he is at one time walking "by hedge-row elms on hillocks green;" and at another, "in trim gardens." When we are willing to escape from the tedium of uniformity, nature and accident supply numberless varieties, which we shall for the most part vainly strive to heighten and improve. It is too much to say, that we will use the face of the country as the painter does his canvas;
Take thy plastic spade,
It is thy pencil; take thy seeds, thy plants,
They are thy colours.
The analogy can scarcely hold farther than in a parterre; and even there very imperfectly. Mason could not bear to see his own system pushed to that excess into which it naturally led; and bitterly resented the attempts made by the advocates of the picturesque, to introduce into his landscapes more factitious wildness than he intended.
In 1783 he published a Translation from the Latin of Du Fresnoy's Art of Painting, in which the precepts are more capable of being reduced to practice. He had undertaken the task when young, partly as an exercise in versification, and partly to fix on his mind the principles of an art in which he had himself some skill. Sir Joshua Reynolds, having desired to see it, added some notes, and induced him to revise and publish it. The artist found in it the theory of ideal beauty, which had been taught him by Zachary Mudge, from the writings of Plato, and which enabled him to rise above the mere mechanism of his predecessors. That Mason's version surpasses the original, is not saying much in its praise. In some prefatory lines addressed to Reynolds, he has described the character of Dryden with much happiness.
The last poem which he published separately, was a Secular Ode on the Revolution in 1688. It was formal and vapid; but sufficed to shew that time, though it had checked "the lyric rapture," had left him his ardour in the cause of freedom. Like the two leaders of the opposite parties, Pitt and Fox, he hailed with glad voice the dawn of French liberty. It was only for the gifted eye of Burke to foresee the storm that was impending.
At the same time he recommended the cause of the enslaved Negroes from the pulpit. The abolition of the slave trade was one of the few political subjects, the introduction of which seemed to be allowable in that place. In 1788, appeared also his Memoirs of William Whitehead attached to the posthumous works of that writer; a piece of biography, as little to be compared in interest to the former, as Whitehead himself can be compared to Gray.
His old age glided on in solitude and peace amid his favourite pursuits, at his rectory of Aston, where he had taught his two acres of garden to command the inequalities of "hill and dale," and to combine "use with beauty." The sonnet in which he dedicated his poems to his patron, the Earl of Holdernesse, describes in his best manner the happiness he enjoyed in this retreat. He was not long permitted to add to his other pleasures the comforts of a connubial life. In 1765 he had married Mary, daughter of William Shermon, Esq., of Kingston-upon-Hull, who in two years left him a widower. Her epitaph is one of those little poems to which we can always return with a melancholy pleasure. I have heard that this lady had so little regard for the art in which her husband excelled, that on his presenting her with a copy of verses, after the wedding was over, she crumpled them up and put them into her pocket unread. When he had entered his seventieth year, Hurd, who had been his first friend, and the faithful monitor of his studies from youth, confined him "to a sonnet once a year, or so;" warning him, that "age, like infancy, should forbear to play with pointed tools." He had more latitude allowed in prose; for in 1795 he published Essays, Historical and Critical, on English Church Music. In the former part of his subject, he is said, by those who have the best means of knowing, to be well informed and accurate; but in the latter to err on the side of a dry simplicity, which, in the present refined state of the art, it would not answer any good purpose to introduce into the music of our churches. In speaking of a wind instrument, which William of Malmsbury seems to describe as being acted on by the vapour arising from hot water, he has unfortunately gone out of his way to ridicule the projected invention of the steam-boat by Lord Stanhope. The atrocities committed during the fury of the French Revolution had so entirely cured him of his predilection for the popular part of our Government, that he could not resist the opportunity, however ill-timed, of casting a slur on this nobleman, who was accused of being over-partial to it. In the third Essay, on Parochial Psalmody, he gives the preference to Merrick's weak and affected version over the two other translations that are used in our churches. The late Bishop Horsley, in his Commentary on the Psalms, was, I believe, the first who was hardy enough to claim that palm for Sternhold, to which, with all its awkwardness, his rude vigour entitles him.
When he comes to speak of "Christianizing" our hymns, the apprehension which he expresses of deviating from the present practice of our establishment, seems to have restrained him from saying something which he would otherwise have said. The question surely is not so much, what the practice of our present establishment is, as what that of the first Christians was. There is, perhaps, no alteration in our service that could be made with better effect than this, provided it were made with as great caution as its importance demands.
His death, which was at last sudden, was caused by a hurt on his shin, that happened when he was stepping out of his carriage. On the Sunday (two days after) he felt so little inconvenience from the accident, as to officiate in his church at Aston. But on the next Wednesday, the 7th of April, 1797, a rapid mortification brought him to his grave. His monument, of which Bacon was the sculptor, is placed in Westminster Abbey, near that of Gray, with the following inscription:—
Gulielmo Mason, A.M.
Si quis alius
Culto, Casto, Pio
Ob. 7. Apr. 1797.
Mason is reported to have been ugly in his person. His portrait by Reynolds gives to features, ill-formed and gross, an expression of intelligence and benignity. In the latter part of life, his character appears to have undergone a greater change, from its primitive openness and good nature, than mere time and experience of the world should have wrought in it. Perhaps this was nothing more than a slight perversion which he had contracted in the school of Warburton. What was a coarse arrogance in the master himself, assumed the form of nicety and superciliousness in the less confident and better regulated tempers of Mason and Hurd. His harmless vanity cleaved to him longer. As a proof of this, it is related that, several years after the publication of Isis, when he was travelling through Oxford, and happened to Pass over Magdalen Bridge at a late hour of the evening, he turned round to a friend who was riding with him, and remarked that it was luckily grown dusk, for they should enter the University unobserved. When his friend, with some surprise inquired into the reason of this caution: What, (said he) do you not remember my Isis ?
He was very sensible to the annoyance of the periodical critics, which Gray was too philosophical or too proud to regard otherwise than as matter of amusement. He was the butt for a long line of satirists or lampooners. Churchill, Lloyd, Colman, the author of the Probationary Odes, and, if I remember right, Paul Whitehead and Wolcot, all levelled their shafts at him in turn. In the Probationary Odes, his peculiarities were well caught: when the writer of these pages repeated some of the lines in which he was imitated to Anna Seward, whose admiration of Mason is recorded in her letters, she observed, that what was meant for a burlesque was in itself excellent. There is reason to suppose that he sometimes indulged himself in the same license under which he suffered from others. If he was indeed the author of the Heroic Epistle to Sir William Chambers, and of some other anonymous satires which have been imputed to him, he must have felt Hayley's intended compliment as a severe reproach:
Sublimer Mason! not to thee belong
The reptile beauties of invenom'd song.
Of the Epistle, when it was remarked, in the hearing of Thomas Warton, that it had more energy than could have been expected from Walpole, to whom others ascribed it, Warton remarked that it might have been written by Walpole, and buckramed by Mason. Indeed, it is not unlikely that one supplied the venom, and the other spotted the snake. In a Letter of expostulation to Warton, Mason did not go the length of disclaiming the satire, though he was angry enough that it should be laid at his door. I have beard that he received with much apathy the praises offered him by Hayley, in the Essay on Epic Poetry. He has remarked, "that if rhyme does not condense the sense, which passes through its vehicle, it ceases to be good, either as verse or rhyme." This rule is laid down too broadly. His own practice was not always consonant with it, as Hayley's never was. With Darwin's poetry, it is said that he was much pleased.
His way of composing, as we learn from Gray's remarks upon his poems, was to cast down his first thoughts carelessly, and at large, and then clip them here and there at leisure. "This method," as his friend observed, "will leave behind it a laxity, a diffuseness. The force of a thought (otherwise well-invented, well-turned, and well-placed) is often weakened by it." He might have added, that it is apt to give to poetry the air of declamation.
Mason wished to join what he considered the correctness of Pope with the high imaginative power of Milton, and the lavish colouring of Spenser. In the attempt to unite qualities so heterogeneous, the effect of each is in a great measure lost, and little better than a caput mortuum remains. With all his praises of simplicity, he is generally much afraid of saying any thing in a plain and natural manner. He often expresses the commonest thoughts in a studied periphrasis. He is like a man, who being admitted into better company than his birth and education have fitted him for, is under continual apprehension, lest his attitude and motions should betray his origin. Even his negligence is studied. His muse resembles the Prioresse in Chaucer,
That pained her to counterfete chere,
Of court and be stateliche of manere,
And to been holden digne of reverence.
Yet there were happier moments in which he delivered himself up to the ruling inspiration. So it was when he composed the choruses in the Caractacus, beginning,
Mona on Snowdon calls—
Hail, thou harp of Phrygian frame—
and "Hark! heard ye not yon footstep dread" — Of which it is scarcely too much to say that in some parts they remind us of the ancient tragedians.
In each of his two Tragedies, the incidents are conducted with so much skill, and there is so much power of moving the affections, that one is tempted to wish he had pursued this line, though he perhaps would never have done any thing much better in it. One great fault is that the dramatis personae are too much employed in pointing out the Claudes and Salvator Rosa with which they are surrounded. They seem to want nothing but long poles in their hands to make them very good conductors over a gallery of pictures. When Earl Orgar, on seeing the habitation of his daughter, begins
How nobly does this venerable wood,
Gilt with the glories of the orient sun,
Embosom yon fair mansion! The soft air
Salutes me with most cool and temperate breath;
And, as I tread, the flower-besprinkled lawn
Sends up a cloud of fragrance —
and Aulus Didius opens the other play with a description somewhat more appropriate:
This is the secret centre of the isle:
Here, Romans, pause, and let the eye of wonder
Gaze on the solemn scene; behold yon oak,
How stern he frowns, and with his broad brawn arms
Chills the pale plain beneath him: mark yon altar,
The dark stream brawling round its rugged base,
These cliffs, these yawning caverns, this wide circus,
Skirted with unhewn stone; they awe my soul,
As if the very genius of the place
Himself appear'd, and with terrific tread
Stalk'd through his drear domain—
we could fancy that both these personages had come fresh from the study of the English garden. The distresses of Elfrida, and the heroism of Caractacus, are in danger of becoming objects of secondary consideration, while we are admiring the shades of Harewood, and the rocks of Mona. He has attempted to shelter himself under the authority of Sophocles; but though there are some exquisite touches of landscape-painting its that drama, the poet has introduced them with a much more sparing hand. It is said that Hurd pruned away a great deal more luxuriance of this kind, with which the first draught of the Elfrida was overrun; and we learn from Gray, in his admirable letter of criticism on the Caractacus, that the opening of that tragedy was, as it at first stood, even much more objectionable than at present. Such descriptions are better suited to the Masque, a species of drama founded on some wild and romantic adventure, and of which the interest does not depend on the manners or the passions. It is therefore more in its place in Argentile and Curan, which he calls a legendary drama, written on the old English model. He composed it after the other two, and during the short time that his wife lived; but, like several of his poems, it was not published till the year of his decease. The beginning promises well; and the language of our old writers is at first tolerably well imitated. There is afterwards too much trick and too many prettinesses; such is that of the nosegay which the princess finds, and concludes from its tasteful arrangement to be the work of princely fingers. The subordinate parts, of the Falconer, and Ralph, his deputy, are not sustained according to the author's first conception of them. The story is well put together. He has, perhaps, nothing else that is equal in expression to the following passage.
Thou know'st, when we did quit our anchor'd barks,
We cross'd a pleasant valley; rather say
A nest of sister vales, o'erhung with hills
Of varied form and foliage; every vale
Had its own proper brook, the which it hugg'd
In its green breast, as if it fear'd to lose
The treasur'd crystal. You might mark the course
Of these cool rills more by the ear than eye,
For, though they oft would to the sun unfold
Their silver as they past, 'twas quickly lost;
But ever did they murmur. On the verge
Of one of these clear streams, there stood a cell
O'ergrown with moss and ivy; near to which,
On a fall'n trunk, that bridged the little brook,
A hermit sat. Of him we ask'd the name
Of this sweet valley, and he call'd it Hakeness.
(Argentile and Curan, A. 1.)
In two lines more, we are unluckily reminded that this is no living landscape.
Thither, my Sewold, go, pitch thy tent
Near to thy ships, for they are near the "scene."
Since the time of Mason, this rage for describing what is called scenery (and scenery indeed it often is, having little of nature in it) has infected many of our play-writers and novelists.
Argentile's intention of raising a rustic monument to the memory of his father, is taken from Shakspeare.
This grove my sighs shall consecrate; in shape
Of some fair tomb, here will I heap the turf
And call it Adelbright's. Yon aged yew,
Whose rifted trunk, rough bark, and gnarled roots,
Give solemn proof of its high ancientry,
Shall canopy the shrine. There's not a flower,
That hangs the dewy head, and seems to weep,
As pallid blue bells, crow-tyes and marsh lilies,
But I'll plant here, and if they chance to wither,
My tears shall water them; there's not a bird
That trails a sad soft note, as ringdoves do,
Or twitters painfully like the dun martlet,
But I will lure by my best art, to roost
And plain them in these branches. Larks and finches
Will I fright hence, nor aught shall dare approach
This pensive spot, save solitary things
That love to mourn as I do.
How cold and lifeless are these pretty lines, when compared to the "wench-like words," of the young princes, which suggested them.
If he be gone he'll make his grave a bed;
With female fairies will his tomb be haunted,
And worms will not come to thee.
Arv. With fairest flow'rs,
Whilst summer lasts, and I live here, Fidele,
I'll sweeten thy sad grave. Thou shalt not lack
The flower that's like thy face, pale primrose, nor
Time azured hare-bell, like thy veins; no, nor
The leaf of eglantine, whom not to slander,
Out-sweeten'd not thy breath: the ruddock would
With charitable bill (O bill, fore-shaming
The rich-left heirs, that let their fathers lie
Without a monument!) bring thee all this;
Yea, and furr'd moss besides, when flowers are none,
To winter-ground thy corse.
This is grief, seeking to relieve and forget itself in fiction and fancy; the other, though the occasion required an expression of deeper sorrow, is a mere pomp of feeling.
His blank verse in the English Garden has not the majesty of Akenside, the sweetness of Dyer, or the terseness of Armstrong. Its characteristic is delicacy; but it is a delicacy approaching nearer to weakness than to grace. It his more resemblance to the rill that trickles over its fretted channel, than to the stream that winds with a full tide, and "warbles as it flows." The practice of cutting it into dialogue had perhaps crippled him. As he has made the characters in his plays too attentive to the decorations of the scene-painter, so in the last book of the English Garden he has turned his landscape into a theatre, for the representation of a play. The story of Nerina is too long and too complicated for an episode in a didactic poem. He will seldom bear to be confronted with those writers whom he is found either by accident or design to resemble. His picture of the callow young in a bird's-nest is, I think, with same alteration, copied from Statius.
—Her young meanwhile
Callow and cold, from their moss-woven nest
Peep forth; they stretch their little eager throats
Broad to the wind, and plead to the lone spray
Their famish'd plaint importunately shrill.
(English Garden, b. 3.)
—Volucrum sic turba recentum,
Cum reducem longo prospexit in aethere matrem,
Ire cupit contra, summaque e margine nidi
Extat hians; jam jamque cadat ni pectore toto
Obstet aperta parens et amantibus increpet alis.
(Theb. lib. x. 458.)
Oppian's imitation of this is happier [Greek characters].
Hurd, in the letter he addressed to him on the Marks of Imitation, observed, that the imagery with which the Ode to Memory opens, is borrowed from Strada's Prolusions. The chorus in Elfrida, beginning
Hail to thy living light,
Ambrosial morn! all hail thy roseate ray:
is taken from the Hymnus in Auroram, by Flaminio.
His Sappho, a lyrical drama, is one of the few attempts that have been made to bring amongst us that tuneful trifle, the modern Opera of the Italians. It has been transferred by Mr. Malone into that language, to which alone it seemed properly to belong. Mr. Glasse has done as much for Caractacus by giving it up to the Greek. Of the two Odes, which are all, excepting some few fragments, that remain to us of the Lesbian poetess, he has introduced Translations into his drama. There is more glitter of phrase than in the versions made, if I recollect right, by Ambrose Phillips, which are inserted in the Spectator, No. 222 and 229; but much less of that passionate motion which marks the original. Most of my readers will remember that which begins,
Blest as the immortal Gods is he,
The youth who fondly sits by thee,
And hears and sees thee, all the while,
Softly speak and sweetly smile.
It is thus rendered by Mason:
The youth that gazes on thy charms,
Rivals in bliss the Gods on high,
Whose ear thy pleasing converse warms,
Thy lovely smile his eye.
But trembling awe my bosom heaves,
When placed those heavenly charms among;
The sight my voice of power bereaves,
And chains my torpid tongue.
Through every thrilling fibre flies
The subtle flame; in dimness drear
My eyes are veil'd; a murmuring noise
Glides tinkling through my ear;
Death's chilly dew my limbs o'erspreads,
Shiv'ring, convuls'd, I panting lye;
And pale, as is the flower that fades,
I droop, I faint, I die,
The rudest language, in which there was anything of natural feeling, would be preferable to this cold splendour. In the other ode, he comes into contrast with Akenside.
But lo! to Sappho's melting airs
Descends the radiant queen of love;
She smiles, and asks what fonder cares
Her suppliant's plaintive measures move.
Why is my faithful maid distrest?
Who, Sappho, wounds thy tender breast?
Say, flies he? soon he shall pursue:
Shuns he thy gifts? he soon shall give:
Slights he thy sorrows? he shall grieve,
And soon to all thy wishes bow.
Akenside, b. 1, Ode 13.
This, though not unexceptionable, and particularly in the last verse, has yet a tenderness and spirit utterly wanting in Mason.
What from my power would Sappho claim?
Who scorns thy flame? What wayward boy
Disdains to yield thee joy for joy?
Soon shall he court the bliss he flies;
Soon beg the boon he now denies,
And, hastening back to love and thee,
Repay the wrong with extacy.
In the Pygmalion, a lyrical scene, he has made an effort equally vain, to represent the impassioned eloquence of Jean Jaques Rousseau.
In his shorter poems, there is too frequent a recurrence of the same machinery, and that, such as it needed but little invention to create. Either the poet himself, or some other person, is introduced, musing by a stream or lake, or in a forest, when the appearance of some celestial visitant, muse, spirit, or angel, suddenly awakens his attention.
Soft gleams of lustre tremble through the grove,
And sacred airs of minstrelsy divine
Are harp'd around, and flutt'ring pinions move.
Ah, hark! a voice, to which the vocal rill,
The lark's extatic harmony is rude;
Distant it swells with many a holy trill,
Now breaks wide warbling from yon orient cloud.—
But hark! methinks I hear her hallow'd tongue!
In distant trills it echoes o'er the tide;
Now meets mine ear with warbles wildly free,
As swells the lark's meridian extasy.
After the extatic notes have been heard, all vanishes away like some figure in the clouds, which
Even with a thought,
The rack dislimns, and makes it indistinct
As water is in water.
His abstractions are often exalted into cherubs and seraphs. It is the "cherub Beauty sits on Nature's rustic shrine;" "heaven-descended Charity;" "Constancy, heaven-born queen;" Liberty, "heaven-descending queen." Take away from him these aerial beings and their harps, and you will rob him of his best treasures.
He holds nearly the same place among our poets, that Peters does among nor painters. He too is best known by — "The angel's floating pomp, the seraph's glowing grace;" And he too, instead of that gravity and depth of tone which might seem most accordant to his subjects, treats them with a lightness of pencil that is not far removed from flimsiness.
In the thirteenth Ode, on the late Duchess of Devonshire, the only lady of distinguished rank to whom the poets of modern times have loved to pay their homage, and in the sixteenth, which he entitles Palinodia, he provokes a comparison with Mr. Coleridge. One or two extracts from each will show the difference between the artificial heat of the schools and the warmth of a real enthusiasm.
Art thou not she whom fav'ring fate
In all her splendour drest,
To show in how supreme a state
A mortal might be blest?
Bade beauty, elegance, and health,
Patrician birth, patrician wealth,
Their blessings on her darling shed;
Bade Hymen, of that generous race
Who freedom's fairest annals grace,
Give to thy love th' illustrious head.
Light as a dream, your days their circlets ran,
From all that teaches brotherhood to man
Far, far removed; from want, from hope, from fear,
Enchanting music lull'd your infant ear,
Obeisant praises sooth'd your infant heart:
Emblasonments and old ancestral crests,
With many a bright obtrusive form of art,
Detain'd your eye from nature; stately vests,
That veiling strove to deck your charms divine,
Were your's unearn'd by toil.
Coleridge. Ode to Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire.
Say did I err, chaste Liberty,
When, warm with youthful fire,
I gave the vernal fruits to thee,
That ripen'd on my lyre?
When, round thy twin-born sister's shrine
I taught the flowers of verse to twine
And blend in one their fresh perfume
Forbade them, vagrant and disjoin'd,
To give to every wanton wind
Their fragrance and their bloom?
Ye clouds, that far above me float and pause,
Whose pathless march no mortal may controul!
Ye ocean waves, that, wheresoe'er ye roll,
Yield homage only to eternal laws!
Ye woods, that listen to the night-birds singing,
Midway the smooth and perilous steep reclin'd;
Save when your own imperious branches swinging,
Have made a solemn music of the wind!
Where, like a man belov'd of God,
Through glooms, which never woodman trod,
How oft, pursuing fancies holy,
My moonlight way o'er flow'ring weeds I wound,
Inspir'd beyond the guess of folly,
By each rude shape and wild unconquerable sound!
O, ye loud waves, and O, ye forests high,
And O, ye clouds, that far above me soar'd!
Thou rising sun! thou blue rejoicing sky!
Yea, every thing that is and will be free,
Bear witness for me whereso'er ye be,
With what deep worship I have still ador'd
The spirit of divinest liberty.
Coleridge. France, An Ode.
The Elegy written in a church-yard in South Wales, is not more below Gray's.
Of eagerness to obtain poetical distinction he had much more than Gray; but in tact, judgment, and learning, was exceedingly his inferior. He was altogether a man of talent, if I may he allowed to use the word talent according to the sense it bore in our old English; for he had a vehement desire of excellence, but wanted either the depth of mind or the industry that was necessary for producing anything that was very excellent.